Five ethicists walk into a World Cup party

We asked professional ethicists how to watch the world’s most beloved competition.

Five ethicists walk into a World Cup party

We asked professional ethicists how to watch the world’s most beloved competition.

Soccer is the beautiful game, but the organized sport isn’t so rosy. There’s FIFA corruption, shady referees, concussion risk, a thriving culture of on-field and spectator racism — and, if all that wasn’t complicated enough, viewers without a stake now have to figure out if they want to root for France or Croatia in the upcoming championship game, which takes place on Sunday. It’s not quite as bad as (American) football, but there is plenty to quietly stew on. Fortunately, there is a way to navigate all these ethical quandaries of “who should I want to win?” and “is winning even a noble goal in a patriarchal society?” We asked five sports ethicists what conscientious soccer fans should consider while watching the the world’s biggest sports event.

Croatia's Mario Mandžukić attempts to score on England.

Croatia's Mario Mandžukić attempts to score on England.

Ethically speaking, which team should people root for in the World Cup Finals?

Matija Mato Škerbić, Head of the Research Committee for Bioethics and Sport at Centre of Excellence for Integrative Bioethics, Republic of Croatia:

In short — none, ethically speaking. And/or all of them equally! Bill Morgan from the University of Southern California, one of the greatest global authorities in the ethics of sport, said that the very precondition of the World Cup, and Olympic games as well, is nationalism. In other words, you should be a part of some nation to be able and let to compete. So, if you feel like a cosmopolitan, there is no room for you to root for anyone. How can you ethically justify that your rooting for one team, when that at the same time means that you’re rooting against other?!

At the same time, such a global event as the World Cup brings people from so many nations together, just to divide them because of the nationalistic principle. So, it depends whether we see that as a celebration of differences that enriches us, or the opposite, something that divides as in our particularity, uniqueness, and peculiarity. Finally, the question should be: If you are and feel like a member of some nation, is it ok to root for your national team? I don’t see anything ethically problematic in that, as long as you do not hate, insult…

Kwame J.A. Agyemang, Assistant Professor of Sports Management at Louisiana State University:

I’d say you just root for where you feel your loyalty lies. The U.S. isn’t in the World Cup right now, so it’s tough for a lot of Americans to get behind a team. But for myself I’m a first-generation American. My parents are from Ghana. Ghana is not the World Cup this year, but I was rooting for a number of the African teams. There’s some Africans on the French national team… so that’s been one of the teams that I’ve also been supporting. But yeah, I guess I never really thought about that.

Shawn E. Klein, Lecturer of Philosophy at Arizona State University and author of The Sports Ethicist blog:

In general, morality is just not the place to look for a rooting reason. Unless your reasons themselves are abhorrent, such as rooting based on racism, then there are many moral reasons to root for either France or Croatia (or just for a fun match).

We typically root for teams that we have some connection to — through family, regional connections, or style of play. In the case of the World Cup, the national relationship is predominate: one is Croatian or one’s grandparents came from France. But, one might like underdogs and so root for Croatia. Or one might like the style of players like Pogba and Mbappé and so root for France. Or maybe you fondly remember travelling through Zagreb on your junior year abroad and so root for Croatia. Or you love French wine and so root for France.

Ann Skeet, Senior Director for Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University:

Ethically speaking, you can look at it from a utilitarian perspective and say what would make the most people happy?, then say who’s got the largest worldwide population of, you know, Francophiles or Croatians, and make your determination from that. You could say based on the play of the game and how the athletes perform. You could look at it from which team has the most virtuous, well-rounded, good people on their team. So there’s lots of ways to consider it. We tend to pride ourselves here at the Markkula Center on never answering questions like that…

I tend personally to be a common good ethicist, someone who says, well, what will be the outcome that will result in creating a public good that the shared community will benefit from? For me, that’s a cleanly played game and a fair outcome. In this case, if people can feel good after the final is over, that you know it was well-fought and there was no taint, if you will, to the outcome — to me, that’s a good outcome.

Is it ethical to watch the World Cup at all?

Paul Pogba heads the ball during the France vs. Belgium World Cup Game.

Paul Pogba heads the ball during the France vs. Belgium World Cup Game.

Škerbić: This is the question for sport in general, not just the World Cup. Sport is unethical in its very nature! I distinct competitive sports from all the other activities that people, and some scholars, call sports, but are actually the physical activity, care for one’s health and body shape. However, football/soccer is definitely a competitive sport. So, the way I see it, the fundamental question is how can you ethically defend competition or social activity in which only one can be a winner, while all the others are losers! This attitude is fantastically captured in the Queen song “We are the Champions,” with the immoral line “no time for losers.” And many competitions end with this song played in glory for the winner!?!

On the other hand, the answer can be — Why wouldn’t it be? It depends on the viewer. Why do you watch it at all? If you’re watching it for the love for the game, intrinsic and inherent goods and values that sport brings, you’re definitely a highly ethical viewer. On the other side, there are ethically indifferent viewers, people that just want to be a part of something bigger, something that connects people, or for the global phenomenon and spectacle, or for the aesthetical reasons like beautiful architecture, clothes, hairstyles, beautifully shaped athletes bodies… Finally, there are also highly unethical ones, that are doing it to deal with frustration, failure, futility, insignificance, or a racist and/or nationalist ideologies, that are bringing haters, aggressivity, swearing, insults…

Agyemang: It depends on how you view the institution of sports. For some people the institution of sport is very violent and genderist and [classist], and other people just see it as a form of entertainment and fun and games. For myself, I think it offers a different perspective on things, it shows us life lessons. I’ve always been a partaker in sport whether it be participating or watching because of the love of the game. Playing it made me interested in watching it. When it comes to the World Cup, I get the sense of identity. And you’re watching fellow, for myself, African people play. But yeah, I would say so.

Klein: Absolutely. If you think sports in general are acceptable to watch, then it is certainly ethical to watch the World Cup. Moreover, watching sport, and sport at this high level of excellence, satisfies many important human values and needs. It shows us possibility, achievement, and wonder. It’s not, of course, a moral obligation to watch: there are many other kinds of activities that satisfy these values and needs. For many, though, it is the most approachable and enjoyable activity to meet these values and needs.

Skeet: It depends on what your priorities are. There are some people who might choose not to support something where the governing body like FIFA has had so many of its own scandals and governance issues. Looking at other sports, like football, that are contact sports, I know some people feel like now that we know what we do about the brain injuries that can come from contact sports, things like football shouldn’t be supported commercially or by audiences until those issues are addressed… CTE is a factor in soccer, too, and headers are an issue. Some organisations have adopted the principle of no headers before 14, and we here at the Markkula Center have actually been part of doing some work to support that that work... So I think there are plenty of issues within professional sports that are ethical issues that people could feel strongly about... I thought you were going to ask me if it was ethical to watch it at work. [laughs]

Croatia scores on England.

Croatia scores on England.

What is the least ethical aspect of the World Cup?

Škerbić: There are many, actually! Sport is a place and space where you can see ethical and moral instances in a pure form. Especially virtues! In that regard, and from the point of the view of aretaic ethics (ethics of virtues), I found it very interesting and commendable that Zlatko Dalić, coach of Croatia, my small and beautiful country, as well as team leading player Luka Modrić, after and before every game, are pointing out two virtues that wasn’t considered so much in sport, but are the key ones for Croatia’s national team success: humbleness, and modesty! They connect them with the respect for the opponents, and sport per se. One can clearly see or learn how right virtues are important in one’s life. Here, I agree with the Canadian philosopher of sport John S. Russell, who pointed out resilience as a cardinal virtue in sport, but also in life in general. Namely, the ability to overpower and/or come back from any obstacle, adversity, illness. Furthermore, there is the importance of constant striving for excellence, devotion and loyalty to your family, firm, team…

Also, one can learn a lot about the unethical behaviour, that’s for sure! Diving, which by the way Neymar took to the unbelievable level, trying to cheat, manipulate…

Agyemang: Most definitely the flopping, the trying to get a call from the referee like for a penalty or a foul knowing that the opposing player did not foul you. That’s been the most frustrating thing I think for a number of fans including myself.

Carwyn Jones, Professor in Sports Ethics at the Cardiff School of Sport: The main ethical issue that arises from watching this year’s World Cup for me has little or nothing to do with what happens on the field... I have been troubled by the way that football has again been hijacked by multi billion pound corporations to market their harmful products – namely alcohol and gambling… Commercial breaks in matches televised on the commercial channel (ITV) are dominated by gambling and alcohol adverts. Budweiser sponsor the channel’s coverage of the World Cup guaranteeing their presence at the beginning and end of all coverage and in every commercial break. Both employ the marketing experts to create adverts to induce us (the watching public) to consume alcohol and stake our hard earned cash on the result of the game or any amount of other ‘in play markets’. The gambling companies offer inducements such as free bets to downplay any risks. Cool or funny characters sell us the message that our experience of watching the matches and our very identity as a fan is enhanced by gambling and drinking…

Millions of children see these messages as they sit and watch the games with their families, many aired in the middle of the afternoon or early evening way before the 9 p.m. watershed. They are exposed to the normalisation of two products which cause untold misery for millions, including a number of the players they might be watching.

Skeet: The one I’ve paid attention to the most has been around governance and leadership of the sport, because that’s my area of scholarship and interest. I’d like to think of sport as good clean fun, a release for all of us, and a way to build community and connection to one another. And so it’s troubling when it’s revealed how much money and interests have sort of poisoned the well for others that are participating in the sport.

What ethical considerations should viewers take in watching the World Cup?

France's Samuel Umtiti celebrates a goal against Belgium.

France's Samuel Umtiti celebrates a goal against Belgium.

Škerbić: World Cup is bringing one obvious thing about human nature — a need, a necessity to go in the other world(s), away from the everyday world, a need for escapism. Sports are perfect for that, especially if you see humans as homo ludens, human beings with the need to play and participate in playing. On the other hand, viewers should approach the sport with the knowledge that it is competitive, and there should be winners and losers. There were/are many discussions within the philosophy and ethics of sport regarding how, if ever, competition could be ethically justified. I agree with the Bob Simon’s concept of mutualism. He roughly says that while competing you should try to be as excellent as you can be in trying to win, but at the same time wishing for your opponent(s) to be in their best shape, excellence and making their best performance, so the game and competition could be the best possible! It is easier for the viewers, especially neutral ones, to achieve that attitude, than the involved competitors- athletes or viewers that are highly engaged members of a nation.

Agyemang: France actually has the most number of people participating in the World Cup whether they be ethically French or people born French all dating back to their history of colonialism and how they colonized a number of nations in the Caribbean and Africa and whatnot. So from that perspective, just given that my area of research and what I study, when you read that kind of stuff it kind of makes you think twice about this institution that we know of as sport. These people are competing for France knowing that the reason why they may be competing for France is because France colonized the nation that their parents are from or wherever they were born... I mean, even Belgium. They were known as really a taskmaster of colonizing when you think about nations like Congo, and you see a number of Congolese players playing on the team right now. But [most] people don’t look at the sport like that... but for myself it’s things like that. I think about things that are outside the sport that play a role in the sport. Things like colonialism and equality and stuff like that.

Jones: This tournament, like every other occasion England play, sees an increase in drink fuelled domestic violence and other related disorder. Although there doesn’t appear to be the drink related disorder in Russia that we have seen in past tournaments, the police and emergency services (and the tax payer) in the UK are counting the cost of football-alcohol related disorder. The images of an ambulance being vandalised by a drunken mob in London was particular disturbing. The cost of gambling is not so easy to see, but the misery visited on the problem gambler and their family is significant in terms of financial difficulties and family break up. It is estimated that between 4-11% of suicides in the UK are gambling-related. That the World Cup — or at least the televised coverage of it — is playing its part in this process raises significant ethical concerns. Many countries have taken steps to ban alcohol and gambling marketing/sponsorship of sport despite the industries’ protestations.

Although the BBC coverage does not feature commercial breaks, it has played a part in the normalization of alcohol. During England’s matches, it has shown images from various locations across the UK where fans have gathered to watch on big screens. The “beer throwing” celebrations of goals have almost been encouraged by former players and the word “celebrate” has become synonymous with drinking in their coverage. Twitter feeds have featured videos of presenters and pundits enjoying a drink to celebrate. What message is this for children watching?

Klein: Sport offers us many ways to come together: to experience the mutual love of soccer, to share the emotions of losing or winning, to see that we are not so different. But sport can also be used to divide us. Nationalism is a major part of the World Cup, and other international competitions such as the Olympics. For the most part, this is unproblematic. There is nothing wrong with the fact that people are proud of where they are from and support their national teams and athletes. But there are times where this benign nationalism becomes something crude and base. Fans sometimes use the sporting space to act out their prejudice and hatred of others, be it Russian and English supporters fighting at the Euros in 2016 or more recently in Russia, the reports of some Tunisian fans attacking some Israeli fans for displaying the Israeli flag. These are, by far, the exceptions, but regrettably they do happen.

Skeet: The harms that people might be undertaking [or] how the players are treated. Those are certainly some fundamental things; fairness and justice, are the games conducted fairly, was the bidding process fair ... And I think one thing that’s fair to ask of professionally paid athletes is are they exemplifying character and values that are good role models, particularly for young people, because young people tend to pay attention and pick up a lot of cues both from the athletes and the people around the athletes… I think [sports are] such a common place that people learn about, from the most fundamental approaches, considering what’s good and right, and so [athletes] have an obligation to put its best face forward.


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